BEIJING — North Korea freed an 85-year-old retired American soldier on Saturday after detaining him for more than a month for crimes it said he committed during the Korean War six decades ago.
The veteran, Merrill E. Newman, flew to China from North Korea in the morning. Hours later he left on a United Airlines flight to San Francisco to be reunited with his family, sources at Beijing airport said.
North Korea’s official KCNA news agency earlier said he was being deported on humanitarian grounds and because he had admitted to his wrongdoing and apologized.
“I’m very glad to be on my way home,” Newman told Japanese reporters as he arrived at Beijing airport. “And I appreciate the tolerance the DPRK government has given to me to be on my way. I feel good, I feel good. I want to go home to see my wife.”
The DPRK — Democratic People’s Republic of Korea — is the official name of North Korea, one of the world’s most isolated and unpredictable states.
Newman spoke briefly to his family after landing in Beijing, his son Jeffrey told reporters in Pasadena, Calif.
“He is in excellent spirits and eager to be reunited with his family,” Jeffrey Newman said.
“This is a great moment for us as a family, and it will be even better when we are able to see him in a few hours,” he added, reading from a prepared statement. “After Merrill comes home and has a chance to get some well-deserved rest, we will have more to say about his unusual and difficult journey.”
Newman looked healthy in pictures taken at Beijing airport. A Reuters witness later saw U.S. embassy officials at the departure gate as the flight to San Francisco boarded.
Sources at the airport said he was accompanied by a U.S. consular official on the 11-and-a-half hour flight, which was scheduled to arrive in California at 9:05 a.m. Saturday.
Newman was a U.S. special forces soldier during the 1950-53 Korean War and worked with guerrillas fighting behind the lines against the socialist North.
North Korea has called him a war criminal.
“He masterminded espionage and subversive activities against the DPRK and in this course he was involved in killings of service personnel of the Korean People’s Army and innocent civilians,” KCNA has said.
He was visiting North Korea as a tourist when he was pulled off an Air Koryo flight in North Korea minutes before it was due to depart for Beijing on Oct. 26.
KCNA said the North had decided to let Newman leave “taking into consideration his admittance of the act committed by him on the basis of his wrong understanding, apology made by him for it, his sincere repentance of it and his advanced age and health condition”.
Last week, KCNA published what it said was an apology by him for “a long list of indelible crimes against the DPRK government and Korean people”.
The regime also released a video of Newman making the confession and apology.
The United States quickly welcomed North Korea’s decision to release Newman and called on Pyongyang to pardon another U.S. citizen being held since November last year and release him to his family.
Kenneth Bae, a Korean American who worked as a Christian missionary and was convicted by the North in May of crimes against the state, has been serving a 15-year hard labour sentence.
Bae’s family, who live in the Seattle area, released a statement welcoming Newman’s release.
“We have been praying for him and are very happy that his family will have him at the head of their table for the holidays,” the Bae family said. “We believe that our Kenneth should also come home soon.”
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, who is visiting South Korea, said he spoke to Newman by telephone.
“I offered him a ride home on Air Force Two but as it was pointed out, there is a direct flight to San Francisco, his home. So I don’t blame him, I’d be on that flight too,” said Biden.
“It’s a positive thing they have done, but they have Mr Bae who has no reason being held in the North and should be released immediately, and we are going to continue to demand his release as well.”
U.S. Congressman Charles Rangel, a fellow Korean War veteran who last month wrote to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un calling for Newman’s release, also welcomed the news.
“His release is a step towards building good will and trust with the international community,” said the New York Democrat.
“As a member of Congress who has long advocated for peace and reunification on the Korean Peninsula, I am pleased that we are making progress on the humanitarian front with North Korea.”
The United States and Newman’s family had called on the North for his release given his age and medical conditions that required him to take medications.
Newman lives in a retirement community in Palo Alto, Calif.